The Good Earth

T.C. Boyle's latest novel follows one man's course through ecological and emotional disaster

A world with no beer. No clean air. No fish, except for the ones that got canned before the oceans were fished out, and a weird breed of walking catfish. No wild animals. No forests. No habitat for plants or animals or hardly even for humans. T.C. Boyle's vision of the not-so-distant future is grim and nearly unimaginable, and it's probably inevitable, because by the year 2025 the planet will be inhabited by 11 billion people, and there's very little arguing with a crowd of that size.

Through the eyes of any other author, this landscape would represent a vision of hell, an altogether off-putting subject for a few hours of leisure reading. But there are ways to spread an unwelcome message on pulped trees, and Boyle knows them. Whip-smart, evil-eyed, and funnier than hell, Boyle is a master of ironic storytelling. Fans of his historically informed work line up to watch wild animals eviscerate stupid humans, modern miracles break down the old-fashioned way, and bastards get their comeuppance (along with anyone else nearby).

After the fall...another fall: Professional ironist  T.C. Boyle
After the fall...another fall: Professional ironist T.C. Boyle

In A Friend of the Earth (Viking), Boyle gives us the last decent man on earth, Tyrone Tierwater. A young, aimless widower, Ty blunders into environmental activism when he attends an Earth Forever! meeting. He's really just looking for a nice woman to go camping with and to help him raise his motherless daughter, Sierra. He ends up instead with Andrea, a rabble-rouser with highly manipulative breasts, who marries him, then sacrifices him for the good of the organization.

Boyle splices glimpses of Ty's activist past, the 1990s, with his present-day catastrophe of a life set in 2025 after the world has been ruined by global warming. In this latter time frame, he is a crotchety 75-year-old zookeeper tending an inbred menagerie of unlovable animals for his boss, a reclusive pop-star millionaire. Meat is scarce, the weather swings from desert to typhoon on a regular basis, and the animals are getting cranky. Amid such workaday misery, Andrea comes back after decades of divorce.

This awkward reunion inspires Ty to reflect on how he has come to such an unsavory place in the world. It turns out that although Andrea may have been the catalyst for Ty's transformation, he didn't need much prodding to become a martyr for the green movement. He once was a regular guy, a former resource gobbler like the rest of us. But beneath this veneer, Ty harbors a rage that is destined to scorch anyone who comes near.

Just such a conflagration breaks out while Ty and his family are cemented into a logging road in Oregon's Siskiyou forest. While blank-eyed marshals roughly chip them out with sledgehammers, Ty lashes out futilely. And so Ty's attempts to save the trees begin to pave the path toward his personal ruin. Before long, Ty has plunged headlong into a life of monkey-wrenching, prison time, and infamy that culminates in an Outside magazine cover featuring Ty and Andrea buck-naked in the forest.

By the way, Boyle sold first excerpt rights for A Friend of the Earth to Outside. One doubts that Boyle engaged in a canny piece of product placement here, but he is surely that cunning. Once Ty sets his fate in motion, he can no more change his course than he can stop the Caterpillars swarming over the Western landscape. He alienates his wife and the image-conscious Earth Forever!, and eventually gives his daughter over to the cause. (Sierra is an unapologetic duplication of Julia "Butterfly" Hill, who protested old-growth logging by camping in a tree for two years).

Not much good comes from Ty's fury-fueled campaigns--but then Boyle doesn't put much credence in good intentions. We can buy hemp, eat low on the food chain, bike to work, and not have kids. But if the billions of other people on the planet don't agree, we're going their way--like it or not.

 
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